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Post-2023: Setting agenda for rethinking Nigeria’s dysfunctional federalism

By Tunji Olaopa
26 September 2022   |   3:42 am
There is no doubt on the minds of discerning Nigerians, including the political class, that what is needed to empower the protracted Nigerian national project is the urgent need to reset Nigeria’s federalism through a crucial restructuring.

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There is no doubt on the minds of discerning Nigerians, including the political class, that what is needed to empower the protracted Nigerian national project is the urgent need to reset Nigeria’s federalism through a crucial restructuring. This is exactly why the outcry concerning restructuring and the issue of Nigeria’s anomalous federal system has been on the agenda of public discourse for so long, from Chief Obafemi Awolowo, the numerous national constitutional conferences, to the #EndSARS protests.

There is no way we all would not agree that every legitimate attempt, since 1960, to get Nigeria functioning for the well-being of Nigerians has been frustrated thoroughly by the dysfunctional constitution that foist a unitary logic on federal realities. And so, we have been struggling with the possibility of unity in diversity since we attained independence. And what is more, it is within the vicious cycle of opportunistic politicking that keeps constraining transition from election to governance and to performance, that elite nationalism has broken down from achieving transformational leadership to a mere satisfaction of selfish interests through primitive accumulation.

And so, as is to be expected, in the pre-2023 electoral moment we all are in now, the process of leadership recruitment has become one of endemic bitterness and anxiety for Nigerians. In most of my previous public commentaries, I have warned about the three possible options or scenarios available to the Nigerian political class. Within the first scenario, we can continue with our do-nothing, ostrich attitude with its non-value-added logic until the entire world leaves Nigeria behind in the blighted space of underdevelopment. In the second possible scenario, we might equally allow the downward degeneration of the polity in ways that might eventually combust into a similar situation that characterize the former USSR, Czechoslovakia or Yugoslavia. The last scenario calls on the political elite to proactively act to restructure Nigeria’s profligate political space into, say, manageable regional economic corridors that generate a competitive but mutually reinforcing fiscal federalism.

In this piece, I will be exploring preliminary constitutional issues that could serve as think pieces for reflections on what is involved in really restructuring the Nigerian state. The 2014 National Conference, inaugurated by President Goodluck Jonathan, remains one of the most recent attempts at understanding and engaging with Nigeria’s convoluted national trajectories. And the relevance of that Confab is reiterated most recently by the publication of a new book, The National Conversation: Interests and Intrigues that Shaped the 2014 National Conference, written by Akpandem James and Sam Akpe.

The authors were both media advisers to the Conference. Their reprise of the events and issues that agitated the Conference will enable me highlight some of those complex and contradictory elements of Nigeria’s national question that should constitute the essence of our collective interrogation and discursive attention as we approach 2023 and beyond. These issues, it would seem, ought to be at the core of the present discussion around possible leaders that will mount the pedestals of responsibility across the country.

Currently, there is a level of listlessness and confusion within the polity that is not helping to focus the fundaments of what we need to be discussing. This is even more critical once we note that these critical constitutional issues are not as straightforward as we would want them to be. This is one of the sobering takeaways from the book I am headlining in this piece. The authors are convinced that achieving national consensus through the critical issues at stakes will be a daunting matter. And this is why so many past leaders have kept shying away from these core matters.

Any potential leader of the Nigerian state, I think, must have thoughts and strategies on these issues so as not to be confounded nor overwhelmed. The first fundamental point of constitutional worry is: How is the new Nigerian federation to be envisioned? Should the boundary be redrawn to reflect the 1967 twelve-state structure created by Gen. Gowon, or the recent six geo-political zones? Or should we even revert further back to the original regional arrangement Nigeria adopted at independence?

Indeed, that regionalism has been at the core of the agitation by the southwest for rethinking Nigeria’s federalism. But then the matter becomes complicated once we relate it to the thorny issue of resource control and revenue sharing that have made the relationship between the center and the federating states very acrimonious. How should resources generated in a specific part of the federation be perceived and shared? Is the resource owned by the federating unit or the center? Does land belong to the Nigerian state or to its parts?

This is what led to the establishment of the Executive, Concurrent and Residual lists in the Constitutions. But then we are all aware of the inherent dis-enablement created by these lists. Take a most fundamental issue, item 39 on the Executive list—mineral and natural resources: oil fields, minerals, natural gas and mining.

Can policy decisions be made that will restructure the constitution in ways that transfer items on the executive list to either the concurrent or the residual list so that ownership and exploitation of the resources can be placed in the hands of the sub-nationals in whose spaces they are found; like oil being owned by the south-south? This would imply reflecting on and rethinking the constitutional arrangement, like section 143(2) of the 1960 Constitution and section 140(1) of the 1963 Constitution which provided for regional control of minerals, and insist that 50% royalty be paid to regions from where any minerals is extracted. Such reflection will demand that we conceptually differentiate between derivation, resource control and the onshore-off-shore dichotomy in revenue sharing.

We are thus faced, still following the logic of the federal argument, with the point of whether local governments should be stripped off their status as the third tier of government. Even within the current constitutional arrangement that places almost all significant items that conduces to development on the exclusive list, the developmental and democratic imperatives inherent in the local governments have already been undermined. The residual list has become a mere constitutional ornament.

One of the possible implications of this idea is that the states will then be left to become creative with their need for local governments, within the available models of grassroots development they might want to operate with. This already implies that the joint state-local government account should be scrapped and be replaced by the state’s version of the Revenue Mobilization Allocation and Fiscal Commission, with representations from the various local governments.

This assessment leads to the constitutional assessment of state independent electoral commissions, in relation to their capacity to credibly conduct elections into local government.

What models should determine the constitutional structure that should be in place for the conduct of elections?

Another derivative of the constitutional anomaly that troubles Nigeria’s federal dynamics is the idea of state police. The significance of this issue is corroborated by the current state of (in)security in the Nigerian political space. Kidnapping, banditry, armed robbery and all sundry security matters have transformed the Nigerian state into a state of nature. What makes the situation even more dire is the fact that, on the one hand, the Federal Government has no will to firmly and strategically deal decisively with the incidence. And on the other hand, the constitution effectively disempowered the state governors within whose space the insecurity manifests.

It is then a surprise that we still draw back from a constitutional review of this anomaly. Should the law enforcement apparatus be centralized when the reality on ground dictates a different approach? Should the possibility of the governors abusing the power conferred by their position as the chief security officers of their state be sufficient to detract from the inherent urgency of enabling the governors to protect the Nigerians within their state boundaries? The same federal impulse demands that we reflect on the constitutional need to create a multiple locus for the efficient functioning of the office of the Accountant-General of the Federation.

In other words, one dimension of that office will be set in charge of managing the account of the Federal Government, while other dimensions of the office will be put in charge of disbursement from the federation accounts, as well as the efficient administration of funds prescribed by the Constitution. In terms of fiscal consciousness, how should we begin to reconstitute the Sovereign Wealth Fund in ways that will make it a reservoir for managing Nigeria’s development needs during raining days?

The same constitutional logic demands that we also look at the nature of the National Planning Commission, and how its function could be made more efficient if decentralised. We also must not fail, at this moment when 2023 is becoming a moment of make-or-mar, to start serious reflection on the nature of Nigeria’s presidentialism and its propensity to generate waste and redundancies.

Considered as one of the most wasteful in the world, this presidential system and its cost of governance requires consistent effort to rehabilitate through institutional redesign and innovative restructuration informed by local political culture.

2023, the way I see it, should not only be seen in terms of political succession. It is a year that should determine Nigeria’s readiness to jumpstart its greatness through the election of credible leaders willing to take the bull of development and restructuring by the horn. 2023 should be Nigeria’s year of redemption, and a trajectory into the future.

Olaopa is a retired Federal Permanent Secretary and Professor, National Institute For Policy and Strategic Studies (NIPSS), Kuru, Jos. tolaopa2003@gmail.com